The New Republic's latest issue features "Contra Iran," an article by Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren that paints a dire picture of Israel's options vis-à-vis a nuclear Iran. Unfortunately, the article makes no serious effort to grapple with the actual implications of the Iranian nuclear program, instead relying on faulty logic and poor history to condemn diplomatic efforts and make an implicit case for an American or Israeli military strike against Iran.
In making a series of alarmist claims about the ability of Iranian nuclear weapons to transform the diplomatic structure of the Middle East (mainly conveyed through reporting on the views of Israeli experts and officials), Oren and Halevi completely ignore the last sixty years of nuclear diplomacy. Allowing that Iran might not launch a preventative nuclear strike on Israel, they assert that, even in the absence of such a strike, a nuclear Iran will be able to achieve ends detrimental to Israel and the world. For example, Oren and Halevi write, "The reverberations of a nuclear Iran will reach far beyond the Middle East. Tehran could dictate the price of oil and even control much of its supply through the Straits of Hermuz. And Iran will be able to conduct terrorist operations through its proxies with greater immunity." This borders on fantasy.
How, precisely, would Tehran be able to use nuclear weapons to dictate the price of oil and control the Straits of Hormuz? Oren and Halevi don't tell us, perhaps because no plausible narrative can be constructed. Israel and the United States themselves, with large nuclear stockpiles and huge conventional military establishments, cannot dictate the price of oil. Nuclear weapons have not given Israel diplomatic hegemony over the Middle East, just as they haven't granted the United States the power to dictate events in the Persian Gulf. Similarly, vast numbers of highly sophisticated Russian nuclear weapons have not given control over the world's oil supply to Vladimir Putin.
Oren and Halevi's assertion is based on a misunderstanding of nuclear weapons diplomacy. Iran could certainly threaten to use a nuclear weapon in order to raise the price of oil to $100. It's possible, if doubtful, that the first time Tehran made such a claim it might have an effect. Then again, no one is likely to believe that Iran is prepared to commit national suicide in order to increase the price of oil. Oren and Halevi also suggest that Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Riyadh or Damascus if Saudi Arabia or Syria conducted peace negotiations with Israel. Again, Tehran could certainly threaten such action, but no one is likely to view such threats as credible.
Nuclear weapons do two things very well. They deter nuclear adversaries, and they provide national prestige. Nuclear weapons do much less well when applied to more conventional diplomatic tasks. The threat of nuclear attack is a blunt club, and has no effect whatsoever when others see the threat as non-credible.
The United States found its atomic stockpile of little use when faced with Soviet intransigence over Eastern Europe after World War II. Atomic weapons could not deter the Soviet Union from launching a coup in Czechoslovakia, establishing friendly governments in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, or blockading West Berlin. In the early 1950s, prohibitive American nuclear superiority could neither deter China from entering the Korean War nor drive the PRC from it. British nuclear weapons failed to bring Egypt into line in 1956, and were of little assistance to the United States during the escalation of its involvement in Vietnam. Chinese nuclear weapons could not bring Vietnam to heel in 1979, just as Soviet nukes were of no help in Afghanistan. American nuclear weapons could not restore the Shah, intimidate either Iran or Iraq into ending their war, prevent the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or compel Iraq to leave Kuwait. Israeli nuclear weapons could not destroy the PLO in 1982 or Hezbollah in 2006.
Oren and Halevi proceed to spin a fantasy in which nuclear weapons unlock the door to every foreign policy goal ever conceived by or imputed to Iran. Not content with suggesting that Iran will commit national suicide by attacking Israel in an effort to bring forth the Hidden Imam, they suggest that Iran will risk nuclear annihilation for the good of Hezbollah and expensive oil. To state such arguments is to refute them.
This misunderstanding of the practical impact of nuclearization leads Oren and Halevi to make indefensible assertions about the threat of a nuclear Iran to the Zionist project. Oren and Halevi argue that "a Jewish state that allows itself to be threatened with nuclear weapons -- by a country that denies the genocide against Europe's six million Jews while threatening Israel's six million Jews -- will forfeit its right to speak in the name of Jewish history." This claim, which appears intended to batter Jewish critics of a preventative strike in both Israel and America, is absurd on its face.
The first atomic weapons were used in 1945. The implications of these weapons were clear by the time that Israel was established in 1948, and became even clearer when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in 1949. The development of nuclear weapons in the 1950s further served to demonstrate that no state, especially one as small as Israel, could be made militarily secure from nuclear destruction. By the early 1960s, scholars and policymakers widely believed that the number of nuclear powers would expand dramatically in the next two decades, leading to the formation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was hardly unreasonable to believe that several traditional foes of Israel, including Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, would develop their own nuclear weapons, a calculation which helped justify Israel's own nuclear arsenal.
The Founders of Israel were neither stupid nor irrational, and certainly understood the realities of the nuclear age. Moreover, they understood the dangers associated with the construction of a Jewish state among hostile Arab states, dangers that included conventional military defeat as well as nuclear annihilation. They knew that Israel's existence would always be precarious because of these twin nuclear and conventional threats. They believed, though, that the existential risks were worth the very real benefits of a dedicated Jewish state. Asserting, as Oren and Halevi do, that a nuclear Iran poses some kind of new existential threat to Israel ignores Israeli history, the dynamics of the nuclear age, and the nature of the Zionist project.
Oren and Halevi conclude by denouncing the idea that negotiations with Iran could produce anything of use. Indeed, they assert that such negotiations would simply give Iran more time to work on its program. Since Oren and Halevi suggest that Iran is at least two years away from a weapon (and other sources have suggested a much longer period), it's unclear why at least some of that period couldn't be devoted to negotiations. Oren and Halevi also contend that negotiating with Iran from a position of weakness is unwise. Iran, they argue, is feeling ascendant, which would make such negotiations counterproductive. However, Israel conducted, with U.S. support, negotiations with Egypt during the 1970s, a period of perceived Egyptian ascendancy. While Israel won the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egyptian forces performed well enough to establish that Egypt still posed a plausible conventional threat to Israel. (Indeed, this performance was critical to President Anwar Sadat's ability to overcome domestic resistance to peace with Israel, because he could argue that Egypt was negotiating from a position of strength.) The Camp David Accords remain a cornerstone of Israeli security, and it is difficult to imagine a secure Israel without a satisfied Egypt.
Iranian nuclear weapons are indeed a threat to Israel, but not for the reasons that Oren and Halevi cite. Iran is extraordinarily unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, and likely won't enjoy much diplomatic benefit from their possession. The threat the Iranian nuclear program presents is on the same order as the threats posed by the Russian and Pakistani programs. As a new nuclear state, Iran is unlikely to have strong protocols regarding the handling, transfer, and upkeep of both weapons and material. Loose Iranian nukes, rather than purposefully delivered ones, represent the real threat to Israel and to Iran's other neighbors. Instead of considering this difficult problem, which offers no compelling military solution, Oren and Halevi prefer to write fantastic accounts of supercharged Hezbollah terrorists and a diplomatically dominant Iran. They're not helping.
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